A trick of the mind

Back at Uni, there was an easy trap when doing essays where you would photocopy all the readings or sources (at some expense) and think that you’d done something significant towards completing the task. All of the insights required for writing a good essay were contained in them somewhere, and now you had them in your possession. While getting all the prescribed material together was a necessary step, it also had to be read and mentally processed before the actual writing could commence.

There’s a similar situation when it comes to doing presentations. Getting the presentation material together is one step, but there is more work to be done before the actual presentation can be given. Memorizing the presentation and having it ready to fluently present is critical, but it is often left out of training courses on giving presentations. They just recommend endless rehearsal until the material is ready to go, despite (if they are like me) most people not having the time to do this.

I recently attended a presentation course that, while being excellent in many other aspects, also left the memorization part out. (It’s worth calling out the one presentation course, one of many, that I’ve attended that did include it: Think on your feet.) However, the presenter of the recent course at least did point me in the direction of an improve-your-memory book by Tony Buzan.

It’s been an interesting read, and the main conclusion from it is that to improve your memory, you need to memorize stuff. That may be a bit trite, and seem rather circular, so let me expand.

Things naturally stick in our memory when they have a lot of associations with things already in our memory. That’s why when you hear about something related to one of your hobbies, you might find yourself having memorized it without any conscious effort. Hence, if you want to use this trick in a new domain of knowledge, you start by learning a bunch of facts in that domain that will give you a good chance of having memory associations to any new thing you come across.

Buzan’s book provides both an approach to memorize arbitrary facts (with some effort) as well as a compendium of facts from various domains to get the reader started. Unfortunately, none of the domains was sufficiently interesting to me to bother memorizing, but I will probably try to apply the basic approach to some other domains.

The basic approach to memorizing facts has two aspects: creating highly memorable mental scenes (incorporating multiple senses, high drama, etc.) and a way to map numbers to keywords (eg. 55 maps to cake). Together, a user of the approach takes arbitrary facts, makes them memorable and associates them with a number in a sequence related to the particular domain of knowledge.

Anyway, let’s see how it goes. It’s great to have a new tool in the kit bag when it comes to presentations, although it seems like it would be more widely applicable. It’ll be great if I can remember to use it!

2 thoughts on “A trick of the mind”

  1. When I was reading about Joshua Foer’s journey in the world of competitive memorizing ( http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/02/20/magazine/mind-secrets.html?src=me&ref=general ), I found it generally amusing but useless, with one exception: memorizing names.

    This is something I’m incredibly — dangerously — bad at. He says you merely need to translate their name into an outrageous and preferably salacious scene. So to remember your name, I just have to imagine you posing, wearing only a besporraned kilt, for a sketch by Anne Hathaway.

    Much harder to forget.

    1. Thanks again for sharing that story. I actually found the stuff about the OK Plateau to be the most useful bit.

      I figured that memorizing arbitrary and abstract facts under conscious effort was almost completely useless. However, that book suggests that if the facts are less abstract, and selected to provide a broad coverage over a domain of interest, it will improve my ability to remember stuff in that domain without conscious effort. Still don’t know if it’s true, though.

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